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Environmental law alliance blossoms.

Byline: Susan Palmer The Register-Guard

The call for help came in through the electronic ether from Mexico. An environmental lawyer working to update the nation's water protection laws needed to know what other countries were doing.

She e-mailed the query to the Eugene-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide, and before the day was over, she'd heard from peers in Colombia, Costa Rica, Spain, Peru and Argentina.

And that, in a nutshell, is how the alliance works. The nonprofit network electronically connects about 400 public interest environmental lawyers in 60 countries to protect fragile ecosystems.

The give-and-take plays out daily in a clutch of offices tucked back among graceful bamboo and enormous sequoias in east Eugene.

It also plays out at an annual conference, where the network's participants meet to brainstorm, build relationships and recognize emerging challenges. E-LAW's Executive Director Bern Johnson leaves Thursday for Ukraine to meet with about 30 of the network's participants at this year's session.

Unlike typical law conferences where experts in a field give prepared speeches, E-LAW's gatherings feature "project circles" with lawyers sharing their current work.

"Nobody has prepared anything," Johnson said. "Nobody's going to give a speech. One lawyer's going to say, `I'm working on challenging a pulp mill and I need help,' and everyone else is going to say, `Oh, really? I did a case like that last year.' ' Pretty soon, the experienced lawyers are passing on the wisdom they've gained.

UO conference sparks alliance

E-LAW was born in 1989 when lawyers from 10 countries met at the University of Oregon's annual environmental law conference, recognized common ground in their individual struggles and realized that they probably could help each other out.

Their timing couldn't have been better. The Internet had just given birth to e-mail. It's hard to imagine now, but back then the notion that lawyers in Sri Lanka could communicate almost instantly with lawyers in the United States, Japan or India was heady stuff.

UO law professors Michael Axline and John Bonine helped found E-LAW in 1990 with a $500,000 start-up grant from the environmentally focused W. Alton Jones Foundation. Members in eight countries agreed to share information, but back then, the biggest challenge was just getting the offices wired.

"For a long time we were schlepping modems around the world," Johnson said.

Once they were hooked up, E-LAW participants could share relevant case law and science that focused on the common ground of similar environmental problems rather than on the different laws and court proceedings of individual countries.

For example, when Tanzanian lawyer Vincent Shauri challenged efforts to establish prawn farms in Rufiji Delta, which would have cut down almost 25,000 acres of mangroves in wetlands providing habitat to migratory birds, E-LAW partners in India and Latin America described negative environmental impacts from prawn farming projects in their countries to help him buttress his case.

That was in 1997 and represented Shauri's first environmental lawsuit in Tanzania, Shauri said in an e-mail interview.

More recently, E-LAW contacts have helped Tanzanian activists challenge the conversion of a fertilizer plant to a petroleum depot. Shauri and other activists want the project to include environmental safeguards.

"The detailed legal and scientific responses that you get are incredible," he said. "When a network is driven by people with passion for their work, you expect and get the best."

In Chile, environmental lawyers recently sought help blocking rainforest logging, said Jose Pinochet, executive director of a public interest environmental agency there.

That isn't the only kind of help E-LAW provides, Pinochet said by e-mail. The network brought him and a colleague to Eugene to study English for three months here.

Such fellowships provide language and technology training so participants can make the best use of the network, Johnson said.

Individuals, foundations chip in

E-LAW still stays in regular contact with its affiliates, sending out circuit riders to help maintain the network, Johnson said, still a challenge in countries that don't have much electronic infrastructure.

"We've got one foot on the front edge of technology and one foot on the back edge," he said. "What good does it do us to have a powerful Web site if the people in Cameroon can't access it?"

E-LAW also sends out advocates who continue to reach out to far-flung environmental lawyers unfamiliar with the help available.

Most recently, Johnson has contacted public interest environmental lawyers in Belize, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. Those four nations straddle the Mesoamerican Reef, the second largest reef in the world that faces threats from development, overfishing, poor port management and tourism.

While the four countries have created a plan to conserve the reef, it takes environmental lawyers playing watchdog to make sure the nations follow through on their commitments, Johnson said.

Two staff scientists in Eugene also are available to review environmental impact statements and travel to distant countries to do the research that helps lawyers win in court.

The money for the work comes from individual donors and foundations, such as the Ford and the MacArthur foundations.

The nonprofit network - with an annual budget of about $1 million - gets that kind of support because it's efficient and builds expertise in the countries where its member lawyers work, said Serena Cosgrove, development consultant for AVINA Foundation, which has given $100,000 to E-LAW every year for the past four years.

AVINA - a Swiss foundation - supports sustainable development in South America, Spain and Portugal.

"We support E-LAW because they're helping communities develop the environmental, economical and social resources they need to survive," Cosgrove said. "I've spent quite a bit of time in E-Law's Eugene office and it's inspirational, the work they're doing."

Johnson finds his inspiration in the bonds formed among people who may be continents away from each other, but who feel connected despite cultural or political differences.

U.S. relations may not be too cordial with Iran, but it didn't stop Johnson from traveling there in 2001 and helping Tehran University set up its first environmental law courses, or an Iranian lawyer from seeking help on the network in dealing with a spill of gasoline additive that threatened a water supply.

It's a feeling that Pinochet - working in Chile - echoes.

"All these people from all continents, from different languages, feel the same joy and frustration in front of the same battles," he said. "Yes, we share information and advice, but we share a single spirit."

E-LAW VICTORIES

Since its inception in 1990, the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide has made its presence felt in Malaysia, Nepal, Argentina, Mexico, Ukraine and dozens of other countries.

A list of victories E-LAW has reported in the past year:

Chacras de la Merced, Argentina: After its sewage treatment plant was found discharging sewage into the Suquia River, the city was ordered to provide nearby residents with clean drinking water.

E-LAW biochemist Mercedes Lu helped community members develop a water sampling plan and found a local lab to do the water analysis that showed fecal coliform in the river and in wells.

Dhaka, Bangladesh: Environmental lawyers convinced a court to order tanneries polluting the Buriganga River to relocate after E-LAW biochemist Mark Chernaik provided them with information about the health impacts of untreated tannery runoff.

Gauteng and Natal provinces, South Africa: Plans to construct eight hazardous waste incinerators were derailed in part by E-LAW's review of the faulty science in the environmental impact assessments of the projects.

Teesside coast in England: Environmental lawyers were able to halt plans to scrap U.S. Navy ships in a British dockyard because proponents of the project had failed to do an environmental impact assessment of the dredging required to build a dock where the work could be done. Chernaik provided information on the potential environmental impacts of such dredging on the marine ecology.

E-LAW ONLINE

Web address: www.elaw.org

CAPTION(S):

Bern Johnson is the executive director of the Eugene-based Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide and is in contact with public interest environmental lawyers around the world, both online and in person. He leaves Thursday for Ukraine for an annual conference.
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Title Annotation:Environment; The Eugene nonprofit agency E-LAW helps lawyers share case law and science with its online global network
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:May 12, 2004
Words:1341
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